What happens when baseball executives show up at a physics and computer science conference? I had the opportunity to find out this past Saturday at the Sportvision Pitchf/x conference in San Francisco. Sportvision might be the most recognizable small company in Silicon Valley, as they make the ubiquitous yellow first down lines on American football broadcasts. As a company with expertise in sensors and software, Sportvision has embarked on a new mission to making a digital record of every major league baseball game. This effort started with Pitchf/x, a technology that tracks the trajectory of pitches. The data for every pitch thrown in the majors in the last three season is available online. The baseball blog community has made a huge contribution in analyzing this data, and Sportvision highlights this work at their conferences. Many of the talks on Saturday focused on Fieldf/x, Sportvision’s new technology with the more ambitious goal of tracking every player and event on the baseball field.

It was a fascinating cast of people who attended the meeting. Greg Moore, an almost impossible combination of Southern California baseball jock and computer programmer, gratiously invited me. As part of the business team at Sportvision, he had the unenviable task of giving the last talk of the day. However, he managed to wake up the crowd after eight hours by promising a Mindf/x technology by 2015. One of the first people I met was Doc Rosenthals, who practiced neurosurgery for 29 years before quitting to pursue his passion for baseball. He and his collegue Fred Vint have started Scientific Baseball, a company that uses modern technology in youth baseball development. The man who organized the talks was Alan Nathan, the physics baseball guru. Alan retired from the Physics department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to spend more time on his physics of baseball research. In an excellent talk, carefully tuned to the non-physics audience, he explained his most recent results in ball bat collisions. Then there was Allison Binns, the young Harvard PhD in Sociology who left academic life to work in the Boston Red Sox’s front office. We met later that night when the entire conference attended the Giants game. In a quintessential San Francisco moment, she and her colleagues used the WiFi to agonize over every pitch of the Red Sox game playing on an iPad.

The conference also provided a great chance to tell people about the Power Rank. Let’s check in and see how the second half predictions have worked out. The Rays and Yankees are tied atop the AL East, with Boston 7 games behind. It would be nearly impossible for the second place team in this division to not get the Wild Card into the playoffs. In the AL Central, Minnesota has a comfortable 4 game lead over the Chicago White Sox. While the Power Rank forecast did well in these two divisions, it is failing miserably in the NL Central. Here, 15th ranked Cincinnati has a 6 game lead over 8th ranked St. Louis. Since sweeping the Reds three weeks ago, the Cardinals have lost 7 games to bottom four teams in the division, none of which are higher than 24th in the Power Rank. Six games is a big deficit to make up, even for a significantly better team.

1. Tampa Bay, 81-50, 1.23
2. New York Yankees, 81-50, 1.21
3. Atlanta, 76-55, 0.81
4. Minnesota, 75-56, 0.68
5. San Diego, 76-54, 0.66
6. Boston, 74-57, 0.62
7. Philadelphia, 73-58, 0.56
8. St. Louis, 69-60, 0.47
9. Texas, 74-57, 0.42
10. Chicago White Sox, 71-60, 0.41
11. Toronto, 68-63, 0.36
12. Colorado, 69-61, 0.32
13. San Francisco, 72-60, 0.31
14. Florida, 65-65, 0.28
15. Cincinnati, 76-55, 0.20
16. New York Mets, 65-66, 0.20
17. Oakland, 65-65, 0.13
18. Los Angeles Dodgers, 68-64, 0.09
19. Detroit, 65-66, -0.08
20. Los Angeles Angels, 64-68, -0.08
21. Washington, 57-75, -0.42
22. Cleveland, 53-78, -0.60
23. Arizona, 53-79, -0.62
24. Chicago Cubs, 56-76, -0.75
25. Milwaukee, 62-69, -0.78
26. Houston, 60-71, -0.79
27. Seattle, 51-80, -0.80
28. Kansas City, 55-76, -1.00
29. Baltimore, 48-83, -1.01
30. Pittsburgh, 43-88, -2.03

Click here for a visual display of these rankings.

Pittsburgh Fans

August 12, 2010

I’ve only ever been to one NFL game.  In 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers came to the Bay area to play the Oakland Raiders.  In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are a religion, and the disciples follow the team plane wherever it travels.  My friend Jeremy Jones got 8 of his friends from Pittsburgh, including his dad, to fly out for a few nights of drinking and the game.  It might be my last Steelers game though, as they lost to a Raiders teams that ended up winning two games that year.  A win at Oakland would have put the Steelers in the playoffs that year.

While everyone in Pittsburgh is a Steelers fan, it takes another level of dedication to follow the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This major league baseball franchise hasn’t won more than half their games since 1992.  With the lowest payroll in baseball, they spend about one sixth the money of the top spenders.  But Jeremy Jones follows every move the team makes.  Recently, he told me he thinks the Pirates will break 500 next year, a claim he’s made before.  But for now, he’s stuck following the worst team in the Power Rank.  A month ago, he sent me a haiku:

I hate powerrank
biggest gap equals Pirates
as true as it is

Not much as changed since; it takes awhile to scroll down to the Pirates.  Jeremy Jones, you’re a true fan.  When the Pirates win the World Series, you have the right to celebrate in whatever manner you see fit.

St. Louis completed a sweep over the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend, taking four games with a +13 run differential.  The Dodgers have been an outlier all season with a great record but poor ranking, usually in the bottom half of the league.  They continued their awful streak tonight with a 5-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants.